Iconic image of protest still resonates

 

LOCKER ROOM:There was a third man standing beside Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they raised their gloved fists in Mexico in 1968, writes Tom Humphries

SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDrecently published a picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The photo was taken in 2005 and the two heroes, in their 60s now, were back at their alma mater, San Jose State, standing beneath towering statues of themselves, monuments the college built to commemorate a hinge moment in Olympic history, an iconic image of the 20th century.

Smith and Carlos with their Black Power salutes saved the Mexico Olympics the enduring embarrassment of arrogant insulation. The Games wished to be removed from the real world which was sizzling and raging all around in 1968. Smith and Carlos restored sport to relevance and reminded us that what occurs on the track and the playing field can never be divorced from politics.

Forty years ago. Two men sharing a pair of black gloves and each thrusting a fist into the October air. They don't talk anymore and they never got on especially well in the first place. The reasons for their enmity are petty and informed by all-too-human vanities and jealousies.

But there is something lovely about that, something inspiring about their frailty. It emphasises their courage in doing something so simple yet epochal. Carlos and Smith weren't a couple of superheroes; they had no public relations spin machine propelling or protecting them, no bodyguards, no back-up, no safety net, no ulterior motives. They had nothing to gain apart from the knowledge that, at the right time, they did the right thing.

They were athletes. As selfish and egotistical as athletes always were and always will be. Carlos would go to the crowd at meets and urge them to gather 40 metres down the track because that was where he would really explode. On the start line he would say loudly to his competitors, "I'll keep a piece of the tape for the rest of you niggers."

Smith was more broody and intense, a harder man to know.

They were athletes, but they engaged with the real world and, as the picture of them dwarfed by their statues suggests, they did something bigger than either of them.

They did what they did because they wanted to do it and felt they should do it. They got thrown out of the Olympics for doing it and their lives, for the longest time, were shot through with grief because they raised those fists in the air. The white liberati didn't come along and fetishise them and reward them. They didn't hit the chat-show circuit or fight for the image rights of their iconic deed. They just got hundreds of death threats and became virtually unemployable and their relationships with people they loved crumbled.

Black opinion on their deed was divided. Some were inspired. Others thought it made the black cause look bad.

But Smith and Carlos had known from the beginning there would be consequences. That was their bravery, facing the world when they stepped down again.

They stood on the podium, barefoot to symbolise black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf and Carlos wore beads to signify black lynchings. They stood with their fists raised into the October sky, a cry for black unity and power. Their national anthem played and the hate for them began to fill the cauldron. They expected - fully expected - to be shot.

If that sounds melodramatic, look at the where and the when. Smith and Carlos were standing on a podium not far from where 400 unarmed Mexican students had been shot dead by police 16 days earlier for protesting the Olympic movement in Tlatelolco Square. Smith and Carlos stood on that podium in October of 1968 - a year that crackled with the electricity of tough transition.

They stood there in the year of the Tet Offensive, of the Prague Spring, of My Lai; the year Martin Luther King was shot, the year Robert Kennedy was shot, the year of the Paris riots and the Chicago Democratic Convention. The year Ali toured the States whipping up support for the pacifism which had seen his world titles taken away from him.

They stood there waiting to be shot because their fists were raised at a time when actions had immediate and often fatal consequences. They stood there having been among those who had made it clear all spring that if South Africa and Rhodesia competed at the Games then they, as black Americans, would not. That's why Carlos has his arm crooked, he has said many times: as a reflex to shield himself.

They stood there with the racially freighted words of the IOC's Avery Brundage burning their ears: "I don't think any of these boys will be foolish enough to demonstrate at the Olympic Games, and I think if they do they'll be promptly sent home."

There are so many stories surrounding that simple image. The all-white, all-Harvard rowing team came out and vocally supported their black brothers. The sprinter Lee Evans, a San Jose team-mate of Smith and Carlos, wanted to withdraw from the 400 metres final in support of his comrades. He stayed in the race at the insistence of Smith and Carlos, who told him to win and "then do his thing". He won the final easily, but had agreed with his 400-metre relay team-mates that he would "do his thing" after that.

Black Americans had finished 1-2-3 in the 400 metres final. They were certain to win the relay two days later. If they protested after the individual final and were thrown out, their relay team would disintegrate.

For their patience they felt the flip side of what Smith and Carlos had endured. They stood on the podium after the individual final and stood to attention - and for their lack of protest they received hundreds of death threats, hundreds of media questions. Were they making a point by not making any point? Had things gone far enough?

The 4x400 final was a damp squib. So was the presentation. Larry James, leader of the relay team, and US Olympic committee president and IOC member Douglas Roby nearly came to blows under the stadium before the start, when Roby began to lecture James and his team-mates about what was expected of them on the podium.

The team waved their black berets and kept smiling while doing so ("It's harder to shoot a guy who's smiling," Evans explained afterwards) and then dutifully stood to attention for the Star-Spangled Banner.

Lee Evans, friend of Smith and Carlos, the man who had wanted to withdraw from the Games in support, came home without really having protested at all. He was treated like a pariah in his community.

And then there is the third man. In that photo of Smith and Carlos, the silver-medal spot on the rostrum is occupied by a dapper white guy. He stands to attention and keeps his eyes in front of him.

He was Peter Norman, whose 200 metres best is still an Australian record. Peter Norman had been notified of the intended action of Smith and Carlos and had offered his support. He wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his tracksuit: you can see it just above the Australian crest on the breast of his tracksuit.

Peter Norman. When he got home to Oz he took all of the odium but received none of the glory which softened the blows for Smith and Carlos. He qualified in the 100 and 200 metres for the Munich Games in 1972 but the Australians refused to pick him. He, too, became unemployable. When the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000, the third man, a legend of Australian sprinting, was offered no hand, act or part in any ceremony or celebration by his Australian brothers and sisters. The American team included him in their events as a gesture of recognition.

Norman stayed in touch with Smith and Carlos until his death in 2006. He never recanted, never stepped down from the stand he took or expressed a sliver of regret. And his path was possibly the hardest. Even if they weren't friends, Smith and Carlos had each other, their names yoked together for eternity. Norman was all alone as he dealt with Australia's ire.

When he died, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were pallbearers at Peter Norman's funeral. Both men spoke, eulogising a comrade who only in death truly emerged from their shadow.

We have moved on. You look at the picture of Smith and Carlos under the towering statues of themselves and you know that the symbolism is of two men who did something bigger than either of them could be. You can't help wondering, though, if it's not just that we haven't all got a lot smaller and a lot more wrapped up in ourselves.

The smug in Beijing will be as dense as the smog.